Ask An Expert / Anxiety

My 10-year-old son has become more sensitive over the last two years and now cries over almost anything. What can I do?

He needs to learn coping skills to handle small upsets

Jerry Bubrick, PhD
Jerry Bubrick, PhD

Senior Director, Anxiety Disorders Center

Child Mind Institute

My 10-year-old son has become progressively more sensitive over the last 2 years and now cries over almost anything. For example, he will take off his shoes and when asked to retrieve them will start to cry. He has always been a rough and tough, fearless child, but now cries over almost everything. Harmless teasing, losing a game, any form of discipline or criticism, slight injuries are treated like severe trauma. At this point trying to just have a conversation about behavior is triggering this.He also plays sports and I thought this would help with self-esteem and make him less sensitive over small things, but he seems to stay just outside the action playing half-heartily at best. If he's playing and makes a mistake he immediately gets "hurt" or shuts down completely and gives up.My ex-husband is 100% against therapy in any form and therefore leaves me little options so hopefully you can give me some insight and advice as to what I can do to help my child. He is super smart but he's turned into an overly sensitive video game junkie and I don't want that for him.

It sounds like your son is starving for coping skills — he doesn’t know how to walk himself through what to do when upsetting things happen. He doesn’t know how to handle rejection or losing or mistakes, and might be misinterpreting playful teasing as bullying. If he had better coping skills he’d be able to respond to these things in a more positive way, but now he’s reacting negatively with crying and avoiding things and giving up.

He might also have some depression, which is making him overly sensitive to things. Although he may seem happy in some areas of life, the fact that he’s having all these over-the-top reactions could indicate that he is depressed. So I would recommend for him to be evaluated to see if he has depression or an anxiety issue. But ultimately the goal for getting him to feel better will be therapy that gives him some coping skills.

Try to reframe therapy to his father. Unfortunately a lot of people have this bias that going to therapy is a bad thing, but what your son is struggling with is actually pretty common, and going to therapy for help with it is, too. Also people tend to have the idea that going to therapy means that you’re going to be talking about your deepest darkest feelings with some guy, but the truth is that we now have much more scientifically driven treatments.

Going to therapy is more synonymous with seeing a coach. If he’s playing basketball, of course he’s going to have a basketball coach. Even professional basketball players need coaches to learn new strategies, learn new skills, think about different ways to succeed. Your son can do therapy to learn these coping skills and practice them over and over, and eventually he won’t need the coach anymore. But if he doesn’t meet with a coach, it is likely that the things he is struggling with are going to get worse.